I met you in a hostel in Rennes. The weather was humid and this made the door stick: I threw my weight against it and fell into the room. Your pink sandals and your pack were lying in a corner and you were there, too: asleep. Eyes turned toward the window. I had to walk around in my socks so as not to wake you, run the tap on low when I washed my face. I had come into town earlier in the evening and dropped my bag on an empty bed. There were two keys to the room and I knew that one of them was already taken. Out walking, I measured my steps along a set of canals. It was already dark. I didn’t have a map.
I sat in a bar on the main street and wrote letters. A dark green awning stretched over the sidewalk but inside it felt more like a club than a brasserie. Dark wood floor, small tables, no booths. I had left behind both a boyfriend and another man, more than twice my age. I’d left them behind and flown to France, for months, but I couldn’t stop writing to them. A couple in their 40s sat at the next table beneath a print of one of Dufy’s bullfights and watched me write. He was drinking cognac. She had that French hair: black, cut straight. The scrape of her chair along the floor as she tucked a piece of my own hair behind my ear. This seemed entirely natural. Where are you from, the man wanted to know. Where are you staying. Is there anyplace we can drive you. When I left the bar I kept checking over my shoulder. It was after midnight and I walked in the middle of the road, beside the parked cars. Someone had left their bicycle chained to a fence and it was missing both its wheels. There was more than one set of canals.
When I stopped at a gas station to ask directions, the attendant couldn’t let me in. The door was set on automatic lock. He slid open a small window and pushed a hand-drawn map at me. A taxi will take too long to get here, he said. You need to get home quickly.
At the hostel I rang the bell and waited for a boy with a red mohawk and a dog to let me in.
In the morning you painted your toes with clear polish: a few bristles fell off the brush and stuck to your toenails. You already had a plan with a boy named Nigel: he was driving a car he’d bought from relatives in Holland. You said, He can go places the trains won’t take us.
You invited me along to see Merlin’s tomb, Morgaine’s lake, and Nigel pretended to be glad. In the room both of us tried to take a shower: there was a drain, but the floor didn’t even slant. The water spread out like fingers. We stood on the beds and screamed, and hauled our things, bags and shoes, up onto the bedspread. We had to jump for the door when we wanted to leave.
The car had only four gears: we drove 80 kilometres an hour all through Bretagne and everybody on the road hated us. You were from England and he was from Australia. We were like a reunion of colonies in a slow, slow car. I told you how my godmother had warned me against coming to Rennes. She said it was ugly, but I told you it reminded me of home. It was the first French place I’d ever been where I could see a connection.
The three of us stayed in a hostel built from an old farmhouse; the rooms were like dormitories. The women’s room had rows of beds on two sides, set under the dormers. It made me think of an old musical my mother liked to watch, about seven girls trapped in a house with seven brothers. When we lay in those beds, we were like those girls. We bought bread and some cheese in the village. Nigel had food we hadn’t seen in France: peanut butter, vegemite. We were starved for peanut butter. There was no kitchen and we ate off plastic bags on a picnic table in the yard, cutting everything with the same knife.
We rented bicycles. The ferns came to our shoulders and we biked down between the trees on small roads. I was out in front, used to hills, you and Nigel behind me. I had to stop pedalling and coast so as not to lose you. Nigel was surprised that my legs were so strong. It embarrassed him.
Once a week I called my boyfriend in Canada and cried into the phone. I missed him in a practiced way, full of guilt and habit. We’d been living together a year. But I knew if I went home I would only betray him again. The other man was a 50-minute streetcar ride from my apartment. In the beginning I didn’t even know why I was making the trip: I would just dance up and down on one side of his kitchen counter and drink a lot of coffee. One day I sat on the arm of his couch, telling him things, and he stood behind me and slid his hands down into the neckline of my shirt. The tips of his fingers against my nipples. This is something I allowed. He had been married to a poet; I brought over a book of poetry I loved and he said, She used to live here for a while.
Someone I met on a job interview. I was about to graduate and thinking very keenly about what I might do with my life: on the way home from the interview I did what Mary Tyler Moore used to do in the opening credits, where she threw her hat up in the air and spun around. It was April, but still quite cold.
We went to see a documentary about a woman who ran a brothel. I called my boyfriend and said I was staying downtown with this other man. It wasn’t a secret; everyone knew we were friends. My boyfriend said nothing to me about this friendship. We never fought about it. We were both pretending I was someone I’m not. I don’t know how to explain this. It was like walking a worn path: you just can’t see anything else, or any other way. Other people were more suspicious. They asked, What does a 45-year-old man want with a 22-year-old girl.
You can say this the other way around: What does a 22-year-old girl want with a 45-year-old man. One day we were in bed and I looked down and saw a bra lying on the floor. Lace. C cup. He told me there was a woman living in his house. She’d been living there for a year; they were trying to have a baby. The woman had once had a baby with someone else, but that baby died.
You told me you were sleeping with your professor. He had invited you to live in his house in Manchester, with him and his wife. One night he came upstairs. You said, I’m in my nightgown and he sits down on the edge of my bed and I started to cry.
You had a boyfriend, too, with whom you were trying to work things out. We looked upon this coincidence like a lost ring in the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn for a year.
Everything was a mess, and we walked enormous distances together. We walked instead of hitchhiking. I wanted to see the house of Mme de Sévigné. You said, There is no hostel in Vitré. We found a room in the tiny Hôtel de la Gare across from the station and couldn’t believe the luxury. You flung yourself onto your bed and said, Brilliant. Feathers. In the mornings you ordered the breakfast with tea while I took coffee, so that we could both have tea and then coffee. I still do that. I did it today.
It was a long walk to Les Rochers, where Sévigné lived. She was a widow at 26 and never remarried. She knew her letters were being circulated immediately and managed to write for both a private and a public eye. She got away with quite a lot, and I wanted to know how she had done it.
In the mornings I crouched over the toilet and vomited. The smell of tobacco: men smoking on the sidewalk before work. You guessed before I told you, smoothed the hair from my face. I ate very little and my belly stayed flat. I taught you all the words to the best Janis Joplin songs as we walked. When it poured we tied kerchiefs on our heads. The sun shone through the rain. I said, When that happens, it means the devil is beating his wife.
A month later, I stopped throwing up. Holed up in my godmother’s studio, Avenue Kléber. Three days of cramps, the soft lining of the body tearing itself apart, then finally a bony clot, purple in the bowl of the toilet. When it was done I planned a hiking trip: Tuscany, or Ireland, places I’d meant to go. Villages spaced a day’s walk apart.
What I did instead was get in bed. I slept, or lay with my eyes closed, on three pillows, the covers drawn up over my hair. I was cold all the time. I couldn’t get warm. I had dreams that I was awake but couldn’t move. In the dreams I saw my own legs and feet stretched out near the end of the bed, my arms loose across my stomach. I tried to lift the arms, to slap myself awake, or throw my legs off the side onto the floor. Just as I sat up, the tape looped and I had to start over again. All of this long after you left me.
I have photographs of us: the ones you sent, after we’d both gone home. They arrived in their blue envelope from Boots Drugstore, and were so large and glossy compared to my pictures. I wondered if this was your choice, or if that’s how photographs look in England. You sitting on a wall by the Lady’s lake. Me in a monk’s garden, squinting into the sun and wearing a pair of shorts, cut off high. The tidy rows of vegetables on either side. Sitting out at night in Rennes, a fountain streaming by us, the lights blurring past as if we were spinning. As if we were moving so fast the camera couldn’t catch us.
Drunk on cider. Teenaged boys walking by us in packs, yelling out to one another. Sitting underneath the striped houses. I’m learning to mimic the way you talk, using old words in new ways. Knickers. Brilliant. Nice, meaning good-looking. Rhyming things up, linen draper for newspaper. China plate for best mate. At home in Canada, my next boyfriend will ask me to say the word can’t over and over again. Can’t, can’t. I can’t.
It takes a long time to pull you from my mouth.
That was some nice guy, at the end there.
I’m twisting an earring, round and round. It’s a new one, and still stings a little when I move it. Tossing about my new vocabulary. I don’t know. I was looking at you.
There is a long moment as we consider this. We are sitting cross-legged on our feathery beds, facing each other. Like girls at camp. Sleeping in our T-shirts.
You wanted to walk with your eyes closed and asked me to lead you. We were somewhere between Vitré and Fougères. Hiking through fields. It was just beginning to rain: the drops were undefined; somehow our faces were getting wet. Your mouth slightly open as you walked. Delighted. Fingers twisted against mine.
I thought you would sink your foot into a hole and collapse. I didn’t want to be responsible for this. Some of the fields were flooded: the ground was sponge beneath our shoes. There were accidental ponds with animals in them, ducks. One white farm duck, getting beaten. A big mallard pushing its head under water. I’d never seen anything like it and couldn’t move. It scared you; you grabbed at my wrists, my elbows. You had to pull me by the hand and drag me away.
We were apart for a few days. I had promised to meet a friend of a friend, a master’s student in philosophy, at Mont St Michel. When I got there the hostel provided only plastic-covered mattresses. I lied and said I’d brought my own bedsheets, and I slept in all my clothes, layers of shirts and pants. By 11 in the morning the tourists were so bad you couldn’t breathe.
The master’s student only wanted to get drunk. He asked me if I’d ever cheated on my boyfriend.
I wrote to you once, months later. Do you remember that? I wanted to let you know how everything turned out. In the letter I told you how I’d almost reached out to you that night. How close that was for me, the closest I’ve ever been. In a way, I’m still regretful: although I suppose we go ahead and do all the things we really want to do. When you wrote back you were ecstatic. You had moved in with your boyfriend; he liked to bring you croissants at work, at 11 o’clock. He made you tea, then coffee in the mornings. You left some code for me at the end of the letter: p.s., you wrote. About what you said. I know what you mean.
We took the train down into Grenoble: this meant the night before, we had to sleep on the station floor in Lyon. It was a morning train; we’d been half the evening dancing and didn’t want to spend the money on a room in a hostel. There was no one else waiting. There are no night trains in Lyon.
Two conductors on their way home scuffed their shoes against the floor nearby. Where are you going, one of them asked. They were still wearing their SNCF caps and the little pins they have on their jackets, the French flag. You said, Grenoble. Before I could stop you. He pointed to the next platform: That’s the train right there. Why don’t you get on and sleep there instead. The floor’s too dirty. You imagined this to be a gesture of kindness or generosity and I followed you even though I knew better. It wasn’t my first trip to France.
When they climbed aboard behind us you were shocked. I said, Grab your bag. I had to say it three times. I knew it was possible for them to lock the doors and it was a long walk down to the end of the car. We left the station and drank café au lait in an all-night bar-tabac. We sat at a table on the sidewalk. Did you know, you asked me. Did you know that would happen.
I said, I thought you understood what you were getting into.
The last time I saw you, just north of Avignon. Your family had a connection there; he was a fat man who lived in a town carved out of a cliff. You wanted me there so you would be safe in his house. He was going to dinner with friends and asked us to come. We took his key instead, walked through a church garden, drank cocktails outdoors at the very highest point in the town. We wore shoes we liked and hurt our feet walking up the hill to get there, and drank French cocktails: Campari-orange. Pernod. At night we slipped into the house. Inside, there were two sets of stairs and we climbed up to our room and slept in the same bed, our legs touching.